Francis Popiel recently fell for an imposter booking site — and now he wants his money back.
Although he booked the right hotel, he found it by Googling “Holiday Inn Alexandria.” Instead of taking him to the official hotel site, the search results led him to a third-party company called Guestreservations com.
And that’s where all his problems began.
It looked like the Holiday Inn website — it definitely wasn’t
“When you click on this link, it appears to be the Holiday Inn website,” he says. “The photos and layout are the same.”
He says Guestreservations com charged him a “deceptive” $159 fee on top of a $338 room rate.
Don’t want to get fleeced by an imposter booking site? Careful where you click
Popiel’s story is a cautionary tale for the rest of us to look carefully before booking. There are sites out there that look legit but may not be. But you can easily spot them.
In 2023, impostor sites are still a big problem
Even though the hotel industry launched a massive campaign to educate consumers on the dangers of these third-party sites, the problem is still with us in 2023.
My advocacy team often hears from readers like Popiel who thought they were booking through a hotel site, but weren’t. It seems the search engines can be manipulated as easily as ever to allow these fake sites to continue.
I’ll have some advice on how to spot a fake in a moment.
Looking for clues about the identity of the imposter booking site
Guestreservations com didn’t respond to messages asking about Popiel’s case. The site describes itself as an intermediary focused on “connecting travelers” to bargains. “As an independent travel network, we can get you the same deals you expect with a bigger travel agency or direct from the hotel,” it adds.
I tried to duplicate Popiel’s reservation. But in the time between making the reservation and his complaint, Google changed its secret algorithm to promote the official Holiday Inn site at the top of its ranking.
And while it’s true that Guestreservations com’s site does not claim to be an official Holiday Inn site, it also doesn’t specifically say it isn’t. (There are clues, though, including the bright red notice that says, “Jackpot! This is today’s low rate,” and an annoying countdown clock that only gives you 10 minutes to make up your mind about your reservation. Tacky.)
Soojin Yoon, a spokeswoman for InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns Holiday Inn, said it is not involved in transactions that customers make on third-party websites such as Guestreservations com.
“We encourage guests to book directly through our channels for greater control over their reservations, and to access exclusive loyalty rates,” she added.
A warning from the Federal Trade Commission about sites that pose as the real thing
The Federal Trade Commission has issued a warning about imposter sites that seem to be posing as the real thing. The agency said it heard from customers who searched online and thought they were booking on a hotel website, only to find they’d unknowingly been doing business with someone else.
“For those times you’re looking to book directly with a hotel,” the FTC warned, “make sure that’s what you’re doing.”
Since then, the problem has gotten worse. It’s not the legitimate online travel agencies such as Expedia and Booking com perpetrating the scam, says Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
“It’s the sites deliberately set up to dupe consumers,” he says. “They’re becoming more lucrative for hackers trying to obtain data on individuals.”
Beware of impostor booking sites
Look at the website you’re on very carefully before booking. Some travel sites look legit but aren’t.
For example, when Kate McCulley needed a visa to visit Azerbaijan, she went online and found several official-looking options. She now refers to these sites as impostors.
“I came very close to using one of these sites by mistake,” says McCulley, who publishes an eponymous website that helps solo women travelers.
Airlines aren’t exempt from scammy booking sites that can lead to booking mistakes either.
Remember the case of Naomi Poel? The Ada, Michigan, traveler fell for a site that claimed to be an official Delta Air Lines site last summer. Unfortunately, she took the site at face value when it claimed, “We, at Delta Air Lines.” Falling for that imposter airline booking site cost her family $300.
Trying to raise awareness of this deceptive practice
Popiel, the engineer from Ohio, just wants people to know about impostor sites.
“I would like to raise awareness among travelers of this deceptive practice,” he says. But, beyond that, he wonders why legitimate businesses would accept a reservation through a third party that tries to deceive their customers. That’s a valid question.
I asked. The IHG spokeswoman (we list executive contacts in our company contacts database) described the online travel distribution system as “quite complex,” adding “we are always assessing options as the distribution landscape evolves.”
I’m sure we’ll be the first to hear if it cuts ties with Guestreservations com.
“Third-party websites are sophisticated these days,” says Adam Levin, the founder of CyberScout, a Scottsdale, Arizona, security firm. “Websites can look almost identical to legitimate airline or hotel websites. Always verify you are on a secure webpage to make reservations or book travel.”
Perhaps the best way to avoid these sites is to pay attention. If you’re booking an airline ticket, hotel room or getting a visa, read the website’s address. If you’re not on the official site, odds are you’re dealing with a third party. And that third party may try to rip you off. Don’t walk away — run!
How to avoid falling for an impostor booking site
Here’s how to steer clear of these scammy sites:
Do your research
That’s the advice of Clive Wood, global commercial manager at OTA Insight, a company that develops hotel revenue management systems. “It’s worth Googling the name of the website to see if anything has been written about it online,” he says. “Travelers should also always check the small print before processing their transactions.”
Know your destination and book direct
Type the web address directly — and carefully. Bear in mind that some unscrupulous third party imposter booking sites have snatched up domain names with common misspellings of the companies they’re spoofing. And they’re waiting for you to make a mistake.
Ask the site about yourself
Here’s another easy way to determine if a site is legit: It knows you. “A big giveaway is the ability to provide personalized, differentiated products and services,” says Aditi Mehta, a strategy director at PROS, a software firm in Houston. Remember, if the site doesn’t know who you are, it may be a third party site pretending to be the real thing.